A blog focused on nature, science, environmental topics, and happenings at the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC).

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

I had been looking forward to spring even more than usual. I was getting the vaccine; the last of winter’s fifty-seven inches of snow was almost gone. In a few days I would be looking for the first daffodils. Then I tripped on the last step to the basement. My spring was postponed for longer than any cold snap. 

I barely left bed for two weeks. The large boot became my constant companion as I began a recovery that was slow but ought to be complete. From the bedroom I saw the thermometer hit seventy a couple times. I could see the daffodils break though, then bloom, but could not touch them. The day I finally was able to venture outdoors, the temperature once more was hovering near freezing.  I had intended to take a photo of the daffodils to celebrate spring, but found them sadly drooping, a sight too depressing to photograph. 

Hiding near the deck stairs I spotted these primroses still fighting the good fight nestled among spotted dead nettles, a ground cover whose name is almost as depressing as this weather. They are called “dead” because they are not toxic to the touch, unlike stinging nettles that are called “live.” Why this harmless cover is not called “nice” or “friendly” or “welcoming,” I don’t know. 

The primrose also suffers from bad public relations. They bloom about the same time as daffodils but because they stay close to the ground, they are not as readily seen. Nobody awaits the first primroses of spring, just as nobody remembers the second person that ran a four-minute mile. Yet here they were, their very close-to-the-groundness enabling me to find a not depressing scene, at a time when the daffodils looked like they had gone twelve rounds with Mohammed Ali. 

The primroses reminded me that what I had experienced was indeed, nothing more than a false spring, a temporary setback, both seasonal and ambulatory. Hang in there, say the primrose. Soon even the daffodils will lift their heads again and spring’s promise will be kept.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

T. S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruelest month and this is certainly true in our part of the forest. Plan for an April picnic; get a snowstorm. Spring baseball practice is an act of optimistic endurance. When to take bird feeders inside and put seeds in the ground is a mystery.

March by contrast is the month of low expectations. The equinox announces the return of the sun, but does so with a whisper. All we ask of March is that it be better than February, which is like asking a Ford Pinto to be better than a Chevy Corvair.

This photo is an example. It shows the first time I’ve seen the ground in months. Weeks of melting finally dwindled the depressing piles of snow that have covered everything. The snow still dominates, but this patch shows is on the run. The dogs love being able to sniff and dig in dirt again. It is not the end of winter, but is a harbinger of the end, the first evidence of the equinox approaching. This otherwise drab patch of desiccated leaves and pine needles is beautiful to me, not for what it is, but for what it promises.

This promise has been celebrated in holy days and rituals around the world. The key part of rituals inspired by the equinox is that humans do not save themselves. They depend upon forces far greater than themselves. Both Passover and Easter show God saving people who could not do it alone. In older rituals, Ishtar returns to the Babylonians, Jamshid to the Persians, Ostara to European pagans, so that humans will not starve in the dark.

This year the hope of receding gloom is about more than snow. It is about surviving contagion and ecological disaster. It is no longer sufficient merely to call upon the sun to shine. Unlike years and even centuries past, what humans do or fail to do now has a determinative impact on human survival. It’s been a long, cold lonely winter.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

Last month when we were staying on the southern tip of Maryland’s eastern shore, these spiky, dried pods were everywhere. They are the desiccated fruit of the sweetgum tree, one of the most common trees throughout the south but relative newcomers here. Some maps of their range do not include us, yet we have all seen these spiky pods, if in far less quantity than further south. 

The first historical sweetgum reference is from a Conquistador in 1519 who witnessed a ritual between Cortez and Montezuma as they shared its amber liquid. For many years its liquor was used in a variety of folk and even commercial remedies. 

They grow quickly and resist insects, are called “pioneer trees” rather than invasive because they do no harm and can be used for reforestation. Needle-like edges make the fruit inedible, though just beyond them the fifty to sixty seeds found within each fruit are highly favored by birds and squirrels, especially gold finches. 

The wood is difficult to season, warps easily and is harder than oak to split. Sweetgum is not great for sturdy furniture or firewood, but is a valuable cash crop in the making of plywood, veneers, crates and barrels. The dried fruit balls are in demand crushed up for mulch or used in a variety of crafts from making holiday decorations to year-round ornamentation. 

Its greatest contribution to local culture is its autumn colors. Its brilliant and fiery red, oranges, yellows and purples challenge, and some insist, exceed the maple. However, its natural home is farther south and an early frost may wilt the leaves before they can turn. One of the factors in how spectacular our autumn colors will be is whether the sweetgum will join the maple. 

The sweetgum tree is hard but vulnerable. It is easily warped but provides an attractive veneer. It is decorative but prickly. Its colors are charming but prone to wilting.  It is more at home in the south but travels well. A sweetgum tree in the Poconos is like Blanche Dubois at a hunting lodge.


A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

This Great Blue Heron is wading in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where we spent a few weeks being slighter warmer than northeastern Pennsylvania. 

The Blue Heron’s natural habitat here includes nearly any body of water and the sign on about any kind of business. One finds the Blue Heron Golf Course, Christmas Tree Farm, Catering, Coffee House, Landscaper, Medical Associates, Swimming Pools and Restaurant. It is the local identifying animal, as Black Bear is to our part of the forest. 

It is the largest North American heron and can be found from Alaska to South America. The males and females look very similar, though the male is larger. They change mates every year, but will often return to the same nest. Nests usually contain three to five eggs and both males and females will feed their young. Unlike the Black Bear, which is so black they get mistaken for shadows, the Great Blue Heron is not really blue, being more precisely slate with various highlights. It is Blue only in comparison to the Great White Heron, which is found in more southern climes. 

It stands motionless for long periods of time and has little fear of humans, which makes taking beautiful Great Blue Heron photographs relatively easy. This one posed for a number of us, like an Oscar winner on the red carpet. 

They have little to fear except humans and the occasional bald eagle. They move slowly and ponderously through the marsh, often standing on one leg, yet attack with deadly speed, aided by their supple neck and a razor-sharp beak. Their eyes enable hunting both day and night. Their diet includes almost any animal it can swallow. They will live in almost any wetland, with little regard for the health of the ecosystem.  

Therefore, spotting a muskrat is a better sign of a healthy wetland than these beautiful birds. A Blue Heron is in fact a terrifying killer who will live in unhealthy places. Yet one is unlikely to see a logo for Muskrat Swimming Pools or Swamp Rabbit Medical Associates.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident

The bird at the front of a Canada Geese (sometimes called Canadian Geese) migrating flock is not the leader in any way other than breaking the wind and allowing the rest to have an easier flight. When the lead bird tires, she drops to the end of the formation and lets the next one take over, perhaps a good lesson in shared responsibility, if not leadership as humans usually practice it.

Since over three million migrate every year, it is difficult to imagine they were nearly extinct a little more than fifty years ago. They were intentionally nurtured from a very small flock in Rochester, Minnesota in 1962. The effort was so successful, sixty thousand were released in various parts of North Dakota in 1981. 

Some might say the effort was a bit too successful, as they have moved in the public esteem from valued rarity to pest. Almost all of North America, as a well as parts of Europe, are all too familiar with the behaviors of Canada Geese resting during their migration. They are noisy, defecate everywhere, eat crops and can be aggressive while still begging humans for food. Like flying raccoons, they thrive alongside humans, on golf courses, urban parks and lakes, parking lots and play grounds.

They were also the beneficiaries of one of the first federal acts of conservation, The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. It was feared that several species of birds might become extinct from over-hunting and the commercial value of their feathers. Until they became plentiful of late, it was a crime to hunt or disturb their nests.

Most mate for life and have become so comfortable with humans, many no longer migrate, just finding a comfortable place and staying there, or migrating much shorter distances. They are still beautiful birds, though their behavior can cause one to minimize the joy of seeing them. Their flying formation is still, however, one of the most inspiring kinetic sculptures of nature. Canada Geese, like members of other species, can be most appreciated as they leave.

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